If you’ve ever skied or snowboarded, you’ve probably seen the art of James Niehues.
Maybe it helped your family get down the mountain safely. Maybe you took it as a souvenir, hanging it on your bedroom wall, like many young skiers. Perhaps you bought his book, “The Man Behind the Cards”, which came out in 2020 to showcase the artist’s illustrious 35-year career in painting the trail map of what seems to be all ski resorts in America.
Or, maybe you threw his art in the trash. No worries if you did. The 75-year-old Colorado native doesn’t mind when he sees a paper trail map with his crumpled paint in the trash. He likes his art to be useful.
“It means it’s been used and there couldn’t be a better compliment,” Niehues told Deseret News.
In October, Niehues retired from painting trail maps. His career spans more than 200 ski resorts and countless landscapes on four continents – the last job he turned down was for a ski resort in New Zealand.
But an artist never really retires, and Niehues is no exception. His next project, the Great American Landscape Project, will feature a wider range of landscape paintings and sketches. Same style, fewer ski resorts.
In November, the artist released the first of four sets of original Utah paintings and sketches, including those from Alta, Sundance, and Utah Olympic Park, all available at his website. In the coming weeks he will be publishing paintings and sketches of Beaver Mountain, Brighton, Deer Valley, Eagle Point, Park City, Solitude, Snowbasin and Snowbird. Proceeds from a painting depicting both Park City and the Cottonwood Canyons, one Niehues said was particularly special, will be donated to the National Ability Center.
His paintings cost thousands of dollars. Bids for his original work generally hover just below $ 5,000 On ebay, and earlier this year, Niehues sold 10 Original Cards, a set of custom skis showcasing his art and immersed in the world of non-fungible tokens, raising over $ 70,000 for the Colorado Snowsports Museum.
Just a few years ago, if you asked Niehues if his paintings could be auctioned off, he probably wouldn’t believe you.
“I’ve known for a while that there are a lot of people following me, because I had a little site (website), you know, and I would get feedback from that. But I never realized how much until Todd came along, ”he said.
In 2017, Todd Bennett, who co-founded the Open Road Ski Company, asked Niehues if he had compiled his art into a book – if he hadn’t, he volunteered to help publish one.
So they turned to Kickstarter to crowdsource publishing funds. After one day, they raised about $ 1,000, getting closer to their goal of $ 8,000. By the end of the campaign, they had raised nearly $ 600,000. it’s always the biggest Kickstarter campaign for an art illustration.
“It just blew me away,” Niehues said.
Born in Fruita, Colorado, Niehues doesn’t present his skiing career as anything special. One of the first times he hit the slopes was at Powder Horn in southwest Colorado. “I had a really hard time getting off that slope and I actually took my skis off and went down,” he said with a laugh from his home in Parker, Colorado.
In 1987, Niehues found a mentor – “the best I could get” – in Bill Brown, who, just as Niehues is today, was known as the go-to for ski trail maps. Niehues’ first work was a collaboration with Brown, commissioned by Winter Park, in which he was responsible for detailing the recently expanded Mary Jane area. Niehues forgot to sign his painting, and Winter Park simply assumed it was Brown’s work.
It was a great praise. So high that Brown, seeing the talent he possessed, passed the torch to Niehues, then 41 years old.
Starting with Boreal Mountain in California, Niehues went on to paint what appears to be all the ski resorts in North America. He would approach the resorts with a rough illustration and a letter of recommendation from Brown. Then, armed with a 35mm camera, Niehues would organize a flyover.
“I was going over the mountain first and would have different panoramic views and perspectives as we moved across its face. And then we would drop the plane at about the summit level and fly over another path and do close-ups of all the slopes, to get the details. , would become quite tight, ”he said.
Tight is a word for it. Since the summit of Little Cottonwood Canyon is barely 2,000 feet wide at this elevation, some would likely have a different and unfair way of describing it.
Niehues would come out of the plane with around 100 photos in his reel. Perhaps what cemented its legendary status is its ability to represent the different angles and aspects of the slope “on a flat sheet of paper and showing several sides of a mountain”.
“I manipulate so many different perspectives so that every time it’s in front of the skier, they can see clearly, in relativity, where they are on the mountain and how far they have to ski and how they will connect. And I think that’s the importance of a trail map, ”he said.
Some resorts were more difficult than others, including Deer Valley in Utah and Park City Mountain Resort, owned by Vail, which in 2015 absorbed Canyons Resort to become the largest in the country at the time.
“There is so much going on in this mountain, and of course the only way I can really do it is what I call satellite imagery – looking towards the horizon.”
Niehues would be snubbed a few times in his career. He never painted Aspen-Snowmass in Colorado, for example. And after being commissioned by Vail early in his career, the resort shifted to a computer-generated image – an approach he calls “so monotonous, so uncreative.” He would continue to paint every station owned by Vail, but not the conglomerate’s namesake.
Niehues said it was not easy to step down in October. And as the resorts continue to grow, adding lifts, cutting new trails and absorbing each other, the artist leaves large shoes that need to be filled. But he says the industry is in good hands with Bozeman based artist Rad Smith, to whom he has relied since his retirement.
To all skiers and snowboarders, young and old, who have benefited from his art, whether it is hastily pulling it out of a jacket pocket in a last ditch attempt to avoid expert slopes, or take it home after a ski vacation and hang it on a bedroom wall – Niehues would love a word:
“Thank you for having my trail map in your pocket. I appreciate that.